Red-letter days

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am

Tonight's family gatherings, banquets and parties will celebrate the arrival of 2008 with the New Year's Day holiday. Few of us think about holidays as the product of state powers and politics. Yet, as the mainland's recent revamp of its holiday scheme reveals, the choice of holidays touches a range of important issues. Political, economic, social and cultural factors all come into play.

The State Council recently decided to cut short May's 'golden week' holiday, while adding the Ching Ming, Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn festivals to the list of national holidays. This should not be seen as a mere administrative decision; it underscores changing socio-political dynamics in mainland China.

Since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, public holidays have been a tool to foster a sense of collectivism and nationalism. Apart from the much-celebrated National Day on October 1, public celebrations were also held for the formation of the People's Liberation Army on August 1. That day marks the Nanchang Uprising, the first major Kuomintang-Communist Party encounter of the Chinese civil war on August 1, 1927. Commemorations on July 1 marked the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party with its National Congress' inauguration on July 1, 1921. Youth Day falls on May 4. It honours the upsurge of anti-imperialist and nationalistic sentiments of the May Fourth Movement, which began on May 4, 1919.

Public holidays have also been a tool to enforce communist ideology. Hence, May 1 became the Labour Day holiday and June 1 Children's Day. March 8 was denoted Women's Day, symbolising communist dedication to liberating women as a suppressed class in capitalist societies. In the Chinese context, it also carries a specific mission: because women constitute half of the much-needed labour force for the nation-building process, their contribution has to be acknowledged.

By the turn of this century, economic growth had risen to the top of the state's agenda. The decision to extend National Day and Labour Day into week-long holidays was a clear measure to boost consumption in an era of capitalism. As a result, the burgeoning middle class splashed out on luxury goods, extravagant banquets and vacations during these two holidays, which pumped up the gross domestic product as well as the numbers of traffic jams, accidents and tonnes of trash at many tourist sites.

The recent plan to revamp the holiday structure was an attempt to overcome the flaws in the state's previous decisions. Although it stemmed primarily from administrative dilemmas, the decision to embrace Ching Ming, the Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn festivals was also seen as a state gesture to heed calls for the revival of Chinese cultural traditions. The State Council reportedly studied the changes for years after delegates to the National People's Congress and folklorists raised the issue. It was happy to see its decision interpreted as people-based governance.

Nonetheless, the NPC delegates and folklorists had a very different agenda. They hoped the revamp would revive Chinese folk customs and Confucian values in a deeply commercialised society. Making traditional festivals statutory holidays could help, they believed, the transmission of cultural heritage. They hoped the holidays would be spent on less materialistic activities such as recollecting Chinese history and reflecting on classical teaching.

Although a positive sign, the return of traditional festivals will not automatically bring back cultural traditions. In fact, rapid urbanisation has left many towns and villages deserted. Dragon-boat races, tomb-sweeping rituals and family gatherings in the moonlight can hardly be performed as they used to be.

The new holiday scheme also breeds some innate tensions: for example, the May Fourth Movement was partly a revolt against traditional values and institutions. So it seems odd to celebrate it while traditional rituals are performed at the same time. But living with contradictions is all part of today's China.

Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is author of The Political Future of Hong Kong